Let’s Invest in the Youth Now

By Larry Sacks

Director, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) El Salvador

 ** This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original Spanish text should be considered reliable. **

I remember how excited I was when I got my first job. They paid me the minimum wage, but I will never forget the thrill of earning my own money and the pride of giving my best. With every achievement in my life, that feeling has been renewed and has paid dividends to my sense of self-worth; reminding me of all that I can achieve if I give one hundred percent effort.

Every young Salvadoran should experience that feeling. However, we know that more than 300,000 young people neither study nor work. There are young people that don’t see a future ahead of them. I saw this situation happen with a classmate of mine, Eddie, who seemed to have a great future as an athlete.  But, because of difficult circumstances and lack of support, he stopped studying and became involved in criminal activities. Years later, while I was studying at a university, I find out that Eddie had been killed.

Without education and work opportunities, young Salvadorans just like Eddie, fall easy prey to a life of crime and violence, either as victims or perpetrators. That reality affects a lot of communities here. On the other hand, if they give up hope for a better life in El Salvador, many youths risk their lives on a dangerous trip north, even knowing that if they do manage to get to the USA, they will most likely face repatriation.

It is time to end this tragedy that it is destroying the most valuable resource of El Salvador – the youth! We must give young people the educational and economic opportunities to build their hopes here at home. I firmly believe that we can do it.

The Alliance for Prosperity recognizes that security and prosperity go hand-in-hand. Delinquency control is not enough; we must also provide concrete economic opportunities for young people. El Salvador has already identified the primary sectors with the greatest potential for economic growth and named them the industries of the future. But, instead of waiting for the future, why not give young job seekers the abilities they need now? Why not help young people become pioneers in new businesses? This can be achieved if the government and the private sector work together to create the conditions conducive to economic growth. Such as, setting good investment policies and encouraging companies to give opportunities to young people.

Over the past five years, more than 20,000 young people have received job training through various USAID projects. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of them who have gotten their first job through these initiatives. The pride and motivation they feel for that achievement is evident on their faces.  Some of these young people were on the verge of heading down a criminal road that would have been difficult to reverse. Now, they have a new perspective on life, and they see themselves as responsible members of their family, their community and their country.

All of this would not be possible without the private sector support. Many companies are already convinced of the value of investing in youth. For example, the entrepreneurship program “¡Superate!” (Improve yourself!) shows the importance of private investment in youth from high-risk communities who are eager to make personal progress. 98% of ¡Superate! participants continue their higher education studies or secure gainful employment before they graduate. Having safe and prosperous communities with well-trained people, and where families have purchasing power, is beneficial to the private sector.

Now more than ever, we need to continue to grow private sector support. USAID continues to join in public-private partnership to this end, such as the partnership we have with Microsoft that will provide training in information technology and job placement for around 25,000 young Salvadorans in the coming years. But every company, regardless of size, needs to join in and help. Imagine if each private business in El Salvador — large or small — provided training and work to a single young person. If that happened, we could easily quadruple the current youth employment numbers.

I am pleased to announce that USAID is launching the new initiative with the Salvadoran Association of Industrialists (ASI) called “Industria Joven” (Youth Industry), which will help young people create their own micro-enterprises in sectors with high demand in the market.

I want to motivate additional companies to undertake the kinds of efforts that invest in youth. At USAID we have seen all that young people can achieve if they are given an opportunity. The time to act is now. It’s time for El Salvador to commit itself one hundred percent to its youth in order to achieve the security and prosperity that we all want so much.

 ** This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original Spanish text should be considered reliable. **

This Op Ed was Originally published in La Prensa Grafica : Invirtamos en la juventud ahora